Using AVL to keep your fleet on track

Think of it as pennies from heaven, but with long strings attached. By using the Global Positioning System and a phone or computer, you can now track from your office the location, speed and direction of any vehicle in your fleet. Using a program on your computer, you can verify the arrival of a truck at a customer's address, see how long the crew stopped for lunch, even protect your truck from theft. Your company can save hundreds of dollars a year per vehicle just in fuel costs, as long as you are willing, every day, to invest time and money needed to fully use the emerging technology of Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) services. In this article, we will describe the various types of AVL, how they can save (and cost) you money and how to integrate an AVL into a comprehensive digital record keeping system.

Anyone who manages a fleet of vehicles (and a crew of employees) has experienced the frustration of not knowing where a vehicle is, what it is doing or if it requires maintenance. AVLs are designed to reduce this frustration by providing information on the location and condition of machinery. Some systems provide this information in real time, others only at the end of the day. Some systems do all or most of the work automatically, while others require manual servicing. However it's done, all AVLs have the same structure built around three different and relatively new technologies.

Automatic Vehicle Location systems

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All AVLs start with the Global Positioning System (GPS), which is a network of satellites operated by the U.S. Department of Defense (see “GPS: Fertilizing with Silicon,” Grounds Maintenance, June 2001). GPS can pinpoint location to within about 30 to 40 feet, anywhere in the world, a any time. AVLs use a tiny GPS antenna to collect the GPS signals. A small computer (as small as a few inches on each side) translates the signal into a location. This computer can also collect information from the truck's engine to keep track of hours the truck was in operation. Together, this information can tell you everything about a vehicle's operation, 24 hours per day.

This information is great, but it's of little use to a fleet manager unless he or she can get the information off the truck. Enter the second part of the AVL System: communications. This part of the system connects the fleet manager to the fleet. Different systems offer different capabilities, but all of them fit into two types: systems that use real-time versus those that provide information after the fact. With a real-time system, the vehicle either constantly broadcasts its location or waits for a signal from you and then responds with a location. In both cases, this communication is handled by cellular phone or radio, depending upon application. After-the-fact systems store a vehicle's location in the onboard computer, where it sits until retrieval at the end of the day. Some after-the-fact systems use a short-range radio (essentially a cordless telephone) that is attached to each truck. Whenever the truck is within range of the base station (your office or yard, for example), the truck's computer automatically downloads the stored position data onto your office computer. Other after-the-fact systems require a worker to manually connect the truck's computer to the office computer. However it is done, this data is a treasure trove of information regarding how efficiently and safely your trucks are being used.

This information is of little use to a fleet manager unless he or she then analyzes it. So the final, and most important, part of any AVL system is how a company uses all the information gathered by the units. All AVLs come with computer programs that manage the data gathered by the units. Typically, the programs allow a manager to view maps of a vehicle's location and speed, while showing the time of day and whether the engine was on. While the software varies between manufacturers, the precision of GPS allows you to see a truck's location to within 40 feet or, basically, at road-by-road level. Maps can be zoomed in or out to provide you both a big picture and detailed analysis. Many software packages include sophisticated databases that will actually give the street address of a vehicle rather than just latitude and longitude, which isn't very helpful to most users.

AVLs allow fleet managers and owners to ride with all of their trucks every day. Think of it as a way of making a virtual reality manager for every vehicle.

Costs

The peace of mind that might come with installing an AVL on your trucks isn't enough to offset its cost. So before considering what system you want, it might be best to consider the costs and benefits. Costs are easy to calculate. Expect to spend anywhere from $300 to $1,000 per vehicle for the necessary hardware. A real-time system will be closer to $1,000. An after-the-fact, manual transfer system might cost as little as $325. Both of these systems require you to also purchase base-station hardware and computer software. One base station and one copy of the software will generally serve up to 50 vehicles and might cost anywhere from $200 to $1,000. You may need someone to install the hardware, too. These up-front costs are all one-time charges. Continuing costs of an AVL system include labor costs for maintenance of the system as well as a salary for whoever runs the software and determines where money can be saved. For real-time systems, you may also pay for cellular phone or other airtime charges. These costs are significant, and clearly must be balanced by significant cost savings.

Benefits

Expect to save money in two ways: “efficiency of use, and reduction of improper use,” says Steve Urquhart of FleetBoss. All managers want to avoid unnecessary costs, and AVLs give you the ability to identify and deal with inefficient use of trucks and other machinery. An unscientific survey of various manufacturers indicates that most users see a significant reduction in fuel costs after installation, typically resulting in 20 to 25 percent savings. This can translate into savings of $750 per year for a typical medium-duty truck driven 1,000 miles per week. Less direct savings are realized in the ability to accurately schedule and perform preventive maintenance — from the engine-hour information — and even from reducing the number of hours engines are left idling, according to Fleet Manager magazine. Reducing the amount of time a truck's engine is left idling can save a remarkable amount of money. Expect to save $600 per year by cutting one hour a day from the time a medium-duty truck sits with is engine idling. Finally, careful analysis of the data from an AVL can allow you to optimize the routing of your resources. This, too, will save on direct costs of doing business.

Because the AVL keeps precise records of where your truck is and how long it is at a job site, you can use the information to accurately determine the true cost of a job. The AVL essentially operates as an automatic time clock, accurately recording how long it takes your crew to complete a specific job. This allows you to accurately bill the customer for labor and build a record of true costs for each job. This information is invaluable when you are bidding jobs for new or existing clients.

Finally, of course, there is AVL's role in reducing a crew's unproductive time. Eric Harbit, president of Midwest Lawn in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, uses an after-the-fact AVL system in about half of his 13-truck fleet. Harbit estimates that his company can recapture one to two hours per day of a crew's time through AVL monitoring. But, he warns, only if he and his managers are “sticklers about it.” He notes that the system only works “as long as the office people take the data out. They need to do it as a daily, religious procedure.” For Harbit, this responsibility falls to his office staff, which spends one to two hours per day pulling units off the six trucks, downloading the data and then reviewing it. If the staff discovers a truck “where it isn't supposed to be,” the staff notifies a manager, who talks to the crew and docks their pay. Harbit emphasizes that it takes a lot of effort to maximize savings from an AVL, but agrees that if he can get one to two hours a day extra work out of a crew of six, he might save about $100 a day. He estimates that a “fully committed” company could recoup its outlay for low-priced AVL units within three to four months.

The other way AVLs save money is through reduction of improper use of trucks. This includes reducing after-hours use, personal trips during business hours and theft. Real-time systems are, of course, needed for theft detection, and at least one manufacturer offers geofencing as part of its AVL system. A polled real-time system can be set to notify an owner if a machine is moved outside a certain range of coordinates. Even after-the-fact systems provide owners with safeguards. Insurance or accident claims made against trucks can be defended using the AVL's data. Although none of the companies interviewed for this article knew of the legal admissibility of AVL data, it seems clear that it is more objective than a driver's memory.

Automation and the future

One of the benefits of an AVL system is its ability to record the location and duration of a crew's activities. You can easily use this data to double check employees' time sheets. Some AVL systems allow employees to communicate with the office through a keypad. They can use this to record fertilizer or pesticide loads, grass seed or sod distributed and even how many flowers were planted. This allows you to quickly and automatically control your inventory if you take the time to record a truck's contents at the beginning and end of the day. Of course, this also allows you to document the work done at each of your customer's properties in real time.

You could even take this analysis one step further, in a direction that some industry observers say is inevitable. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are databases that sort and display geographic data, such as the extent and type of turf at a golf course or the track of a mower equipped with an AVL. While none of the companies interviewed for this article have placed AVLs on mowers or other small machines, they may begin to consider this. Workers could use a keypad to record activities or work done with even small mowers. You could then download this information into your GIS database. Then, with a few keystrokes, you automatically have detailed information on exactly who did the work and where and when it was done. No more guessing about turf maintenance, and detailed reports are easy to process. You could give customers detailed information of their property's care and supply environmental agencies with reports detailing exactly where pesticides were applied. If this technology appeals to you, start planning its implementation now, and expect significant up-front costs. But, in combination with AVLs, you can achieve a remarkable thing: knowing exactly where every piece of your equipment is every minute and what it's doing. It's as if you were driving all of them, all the time.

As is always true with new technologies, planning is the key to successful adoption. For AVL, this includes communication with employees (see sidebar, page Contractor 18) and office staff. To obtain the maximum benefit from existing and emerging technologies, a company must decide:

  • Why it wants to collect vehicle location data.

  • Whose responsibility it will be to collect and interpret the data.

  • Between real-time or after the fact systems.

  • On a plan for incorporating the data into existing or future GIS systems.

While it may take a few years for this sort of hybrid GIS-AVL system to gain widespread use, AVL systems themselves are clearly a mature and useful technology. As long as your company is committed to using the data to change your daily practices, you will probably see savings within a few months. Best of all, you may reduce the anxiety of not knowing where your fleet is, and a good night's sleep is a valuable thing.

Dr. Larry McKenna is president of Working Knowledge, Inc. (Overland Park, Kan.)

BBF: THE BIG BROTHER FACTOR

How do employees respond to installation of an Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) system? According to Steve Urquhart of FleetBoss, Inc., Orlando, Fla., expect reactions from “favorable to downright hostile,” depending on the company's approach. The Big Brother Factor (BBF) needs to be addressed wherever an AVL is being considered.

The worst approach, at least from the anecdotal evidence, is to do a “stealth” installation. This involves adding — even operating — an AVL system secretly for some time before employees are notified of it. Unfortunately, this may reduce the very savings companies are looking for. While this “gotcha” effect may save money in the short term, the long-term gains require effort from employees. After all, the goal of the AVL is to optimize vehicle use and reduce costs, not just record improper or wasteful use.

Tom Lockhart, president of Calgary-based AVL Systems LTD, has a simple strategy for reducing the BBF when using a vehicle location system: “Give [employees] part of the gain,” he says. This is a common theme heard from nearly every vendor of AVL. The best approach is to make installation a moneymaker for employees and employers. For example, minimizing the time a vehicle's engine is idle can save significant money — on fuel, preventive maintenance and overhaul costs. Operators who consistently have lower idle times than others can be awarded a share of the savings they've earned. Operators then have every reason to save money and keep the AVL equipment in good repair.

Planning is essential for a successful introduction of the AVL. This planning might include a discussion with employees about the system, its purpose (increasing corporate productivity and, hence, their job security), the employee's role in maintaining the system (it won't work if they are “unfriendly” towards it) and what they will gain from using it.

Employees' gains can be monetary, as mentioned above, or more subtle ones related to service issues. Suppose, for example, a client calls complaining of lack of service. Rather than judging the employee's statements against the customer's, you turn to the trucks's AVL system. Track data tells you the exact time and place the customer's property was mowed, allowing you to determine whose story is accurate. The advantage to honest employees is obvious. Similar situations apply to speeding vehicles and other situations where your company's name is boldly written on the sides of your vehicles. As FleetBoss's Urquhart noted, AVL systems are an “instant character builder” for everyone — owner, employee and customer — in a business.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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